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Be more of YOU with Bowen Theory

Have you ever said something like, “I never want to be anything like my family!” or have you pointed out to your spouse how they have some idiosyncrasies that are like their parent? If so, you could be a Bowenian therapist! If you’ve been present for the lifetime of my blog thus far, you might have noticed my blog posts have been a bit sporadic. That’s because, well life in the spring seems to just take on a whole new pace…and because I’ve been taking time to study all the therapist theories.

I hope to share more from each theory. But please don’t worry, these WILL NOT all be boring theory-talk. Really, I rarely tell a client I’m sitting with what theory we focused on in our sessions. My plan is to give a brief overview and then include an activity that ties the theory to your self-growth journey.


The first theory I want to focus on is Bowenian Theory. It’s been a favorite theory of mine since early graduate school. Bowen theory is systemic in nature and one that focuses more on how generations within families pass things down from one generation to the next. I know “things” is not super descriptive. Things can be relational patterns, like how the “mom” in the family is supposed to act. It can also be wounds from unhealthy boundaries, untold secrets, and how open or closed communication is.


The concept I want to highlight from Bowen Theory is that of differentiation. I have a soft spot in my heart for this concept, which has amplified in the past year. Have you noticed people in the past year have struggled with differing beliefs or thoughts about a topic? If you haven’t, I’d like to move wherever you are J Well, most people have noticed this. A low differentiated person can get entangled and really caught up with someone else’s experience. They try to control other people’s opinions OR on the flip side they don’t even realize they have their own opinion. Differentiation is also expressed through emotions. A lack of differentiation means that one person in the family’s anxiety becomes everyone else’s anxiety.


Sounds like a bit of a mess, huh? Well, ever person has a differing level of differentiation. The interesting part is that we often partner up with someone who has a similar level of differentiation. And remember, a lack of differentiation is not always expressed in the same way. Overall, though, it’s an inability to individually hold thoughts and emotions as separate entities…and in a group, to not have room for differing emotional experiences, beliefs or opinions.


Here are some questions to help you grow your level of differentiation:


1) What happens inside you when someone else has a different opinion from yours? Pay specific attention to the emotional reaction that would arise. Do you become angry? Condescending? Do you minimize your own opinion?

2) What comes up inside you when a close other has a strong emotion? Does it cause extreme anxiety or dread? How can you create a bit of emotional distance to allow their emotions to be about them and not you? Careful, this doesn’t mean to become distant and cold…it means protecting your emotional experience all while being present to another person’s experience. Their ________ (anger, sadness, anxiety) does not mean anything about you.

3) Have you owned your beliefs and values? Or, have you unknowingly walked along without questioning the beliefs and values that have been handed down to you? This can mean religious beliefs, political beliefs, or even those unspoken rules and values. Example: “Men are allowed to be angry, women must be polite and cordial.”

4) How well can you separate emotions and intellect? Do you cut off one and allow only the other to inform your take on a situation? A goal in differentiation is to acknowledge and accept emotions, all while making an informed decision.

5) Are you distant or cut off from any family member? Let me say one thing. There are seasons where distance or cutoff is needed. It might even be something that is the healthiest decision for a season of life. Yet, Bowen theory says that cutoff is still an area to heal in our lives. Just because we moved across the country and don’t have to deal with the person on a day to day basis doesn’t mean we’ve grown or healed emotionally. If there is any kind of distance or cutoff, do you typically get overwhelmed with setting appropriate boundaries? Please know this is not an urge to relive hurt or push you back into an abusive relationship. It’s an encouragement to take a look at how you set and maintain boundaries for relationships you DO want to maintain. You are stronger than you think!


Well, that was the shortest recap of one of my favorite therapeutic theories! This is meant to be a “dip your toe in the water” type of post. Really, differentiation is a goal that can take years! Also…do we ever really “perfect” a skill, even in self-growth? I think not. All of us can continue to differentiate from others…to express our needs, emotionally connect with others, and be more authentically of who we are! Happy rooting, everyone!

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